After a few years of going through several textbooks I have made my list of the best Korean pronunciation books. Korean pronunciation is central in learning how to speak Korean language properly. No matter how well you know grammar and how many words you’ve memorized, if you can’t understand and be understood you will be confined to written material only.
Is Korean pronunciation difficult?
Even though Hangul (Korean alphabet) pronunciation can be learned in just a few hours, in order to learn to speak Korean you will have to spend more time because letters don’t occur in isolation in any language. Genuinely mastering Korean pronunciation rules means knowing how Korean sounds change within a syllable, word, and even across words within a sentence. Learning this does takes a while. However, even though it requires effort, it is not actually complicated. I have no expertise in phonology, I can’t tell the difference between allophone and phoneme, and yet I improved my Korean pronunciation and listening skills markedly. I assume most learners of Korean don’t have higher training in phonology so you will be happy to know that two out of three textbooks I list below require no such knowledge.
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Here are, in my opinion, reviews of three best Korean pronunciation books:
By Miho Choo, William O’Grady
If you want to learn Korean pronunciation, look no further. Out of all Korean pronunciation textbooks this one is my favorite.
Hundreds of pages of in-depth yet concise explanations and, more importantly, lots of exercises to master the sound and shape of Korean. This book expertly teaches Korean alphabet pronunciation but it goes way beyond that.
Throughout the “Sounds of Korean: A Pronunciation Guide” there is a mention of an audio CD, but I didn’t receive any with the book. However, all audio is freely available for download on their webpage and I actually preferred it this way – there is no need for a CD drive, I can listen to it across different devices, there is no danger of losing the CD and hey, less unnecessary plastic in the world. The audio is clear, every sound is recorded by both male and female speaker of Seoul dialect.
The reason I love this book is because it has almost everything I find important in a textbook:
- Clear, simple explanations without flowery language. As I mentioned above, I am not a linguist. I don’t understand linguistic terminology. Which is why I greatly appreciate lessons which explain everything in layman’s terms. Some 20 technical terms that are used throughout the book are described in a simple way, and listed at the end of the section in a glossary. Honestly though, these are very basic concepts, and even as a non-native speaker of English, I knew most of them already.
- Different teaching methods to achieve the same result. When you are learning on your own coming across something you don’t understand can be very disheartening. Who do you ask to explain? Even with the ubiquitous search engines finding an answer to such a specific query is challenging. This book does not shy away from taking two different paths to lead you to the same goal: Pronunciation of every Korean sound is first described as an adjustment from English pronunciation, and then in terms of position of your vocal organs. This will especially be useful to non-native speakers of English like myself, who might not be confident in their English pronunciation either. Chances of ending up in a correct place if you started off from the wrong one are slim. Instead you can learn how to position your mouth, lips, tongue, and other vocal organs, whether to vibrate your throat or not, whether to let the air out or block it, etc.
- Visual aid. With all the explanations where your tongue should be, in which position, which part of your mouth it should rest against, you might find yourself with tongue tied in knots. That’s why every lesson is accompanied by a graphic of the mouth and teeth which clearly shows how to correctly produce Korean sounds.
- Exercises with answer key. You can feel like you understood everything but without practice, especially in something like pronunciation, you will never truly acquire the skill to pronounce Korean correctly. In this case half of the 251 pages of this book are dedicated to audio exercises to sharpen your Korean speaking and listening abilities. I found this part incredibly useful, and I think all self-learners will. There are pronunciation exercises which require you to follow along, listening exercises where you are expected to distinguish between similar sounds and mark the correct one and so on.
The book is divided into two sections, Part I: Pronunciation Guide and Part II: Practice Exercises. Part I is further subdivided into chapters:
- Learning to pronounce Korean is just a short introductory chapter into pronunciation in general, Korean pronunciation rules and the book itself.
- Vowels This chapter covers the simple Korean vowels and the diphthongs.
- Consonants This chapter covers all the consonant sounds in Korean. They are grouped by the position in the mouth where the sound is formed. This means that they are arranged by the sounds that learners mix up most often. For example, ㅍ,ㅂ, and ㅃ. Or ㅌ,ㄷ, and ㄸ. There are explanations on how to tell these similar consonants apart, as well as on how their pronunciation changes depending on their position within a syllable or a word.
- Adjustments. Chapter 4 is dedicated to all the changes in pronunciation that Korean letters go through once they find themselves inside a Korean word. Some of these changes were already covered in Chapter 3, but here they are looked at more in depth, and the rest of the more unusual changes are covered in this chapter too . Here you will learn why ㄷ in 다 and 멀다 is pronounced differently, why ㅂ is pronounced as ㅁ in 감사합니다 etc.
- Prosody. This short chapter, despite its title being a word I’ve never heard before, is actually the easiest one to go through. It talks about rhythm of the language, influenced by things like intonation and stress in Korean sentences, which all in the end contribute to the sound of the language. It is what helps you recognize Korean among other languages even if you don’t speak any of them.
Level of difficulty:
This book will be useful to you whether you are a beginner or more advance learner. However, the benefit of picking it up when you are a complete beginner, as I was the first time I went through it (I read it from cover to cover three times so far), was that the words held no meaning for me, so I could completely concentrate on the sounds. This was especially important when using exercises because I couldn’t use the meaning of the sentence as a crutch to pick the correct word. I had to completely rely on what I heard. Another advantage was that I didn’t yet have a chance to mispronounce anything. My mind was a clean slate ready to force my mouth and tongue into correct shapes.
The downside of being a total newbie is that it was overwhelming. Learning the basic pronunciations of each letter in Chapter 3 was fine, but by the time I reached Chapter 4, which at the time seemed like an endless list of exceptions, it all got mixed up in my head.
The benefit when coming to this book as an intermediate or even an advanced learner is that you will simply arm yourself with rules and understanding of why you pronounce Korean the way you already pronounce it. And of course get a chance to fix any mistakes you have been making.
When I returned to this book the second and especially the third time those confusing exceptions suddenly made much more sense, because most of them come to you naturally in a faster and more relaxed speech. I fully plan to go back to it again when my knowledge of Korean grows further.
And I do recommend to everyone to go through it several times. It’s an easy read, and exercises usually run smoothly, but you are going to have to repeat them over and over again to learn how to pronounce Korean.
by Cho Jaehee, Oh Minam
Unlike the first book I reviewed above which teaches how to properly pronounce and hear Korean sounds without worrying about their meaning, “Korean Listening Skills” is a Korean textbook that focuses on being able to understanding what you hear. Every lesson shortly introduces new vocabulary and give you approximately 5 or 6 beginner dialogues in Korean with questions to test your comprehension.
Korean edition of “Korean Listening Skills: Practical Tasks for Beginners” is a bilingual book, with everything written in parallel, both in English and Korean. I assume this is both to facilitate learning and to be used by second generation Korean learners who may not know English but already know some Korean from their parents.
The aspects of this book that I particularly liked:
- Large number of audio files. Even though most Korean textbooks have audio material that follows lessons there is too few of such exercises to really get used to and improve enough to understand Korean conversations. This book is packed with native Korean dialogues from beginning to the end and really gives you an opportunity to improve. Audio is recorded by native speakers with CD that comes in a plastic sleeve at the end of the book, but mp3 files are also available for download online.
- Several versions of the sentence with the same meaning. In every language there different ways to say the exact same thing. Usually textbooks teach you only one and then you get stumped when you are faced with the real world. I like that this book provides several versions, for example, “Where does it hurt?” is given in different dialogues as “어디가 아프세요?”, “어디 아파요?”, and “어디 아프세요?”.
- Exercises with answer key. Most tasks are designed for self-learning and all those have the answer key in the back so you can check your knowledge. Every lesson has an additional task or two which is designed to be done in a classroom and those of course don’t have correct answers.
I also liked the design of the book, which might not be important to everyone. The book is printed on quality glossy paper, with lots of little drawings. Even as an adult I find myself tricked into believing learning won’t be so difficult when I see cute little cartoons sprinkled over the pages. It’s not true at all of course, but whatever helps me keep on going and not give up, right?
What I found a bit silly were the listening tips in each lesson. They weren’t really helpful and felt more like tips on how to be human. “If you cannot understand what you hear or if you want to check whether you have heard correctly, ask the person to repeat the words.” “If you understand whether the speaker is angry or sad or happy, you will understand better the meaning of what is said.” Aren’t those things just instinctual to us?
Every chapter is laid out in the same way: Preparation for the lesson which tests you on the knowledge of some of the vocabulary that will be used in the lesson; between three and six dialogues with comprehension questions; listening tips and pronunciation of words that are exceptions; two tasks for classroom settings; and finally vocabulary and expressions which will be useful in certain situations.
The book is divided into 17 units: greetings and introducing oneself, location, family, shopping, daily life, transport, hobbies and leisure activities, holidays, ordering food, future plans, hospital, telephone, reservations, requests and favors, feelings and emotions, special occasions and invitations, lifestyles and customs in various countries.
Level of difficulty:
Even though dialogues are of the beginner difficulty, this book is absolutely not meant for absolute beginners. You definitely need to go through a textbook that teaches vocabulary and grammar first because this one doesn’t teach that. By the time I begun this book I had already finished the “Korean Made Easy for Beginners“, a beginner Korean textbook from the same publisher Darakwon which I briefly mentioned in How to learn Korean. Even though I have learned almost everything in the “Korean Made Easy” book, my knowledge was barely enough to understand half of the dialogues. While there are certain benefits for retention if you are struggling while learning a language, you may choose to delay using this book until you are upper beginner.
If you are not certain you are ready for this first read 10 best ways to learn Korean vocabulary.
The lessons are not progressively more difficult, though, but rather divided by topics, such as shopping, making reservations, location, family, talking over the phone and so on.
I recommend you listen to each dialogue, several times if needed, and try to answer the questions on your own. Then go to the back of the book and listen to the dialogue again while following along with written text. Don’t go to the text right away. After all, the whole point is to improve your listening skills. Only then go to the answer key and check your responses.
The Sounds of Korean review
By Jiyoung Shin, Jieun Kiaer, Jaeeun Cha
This is a relatively new Korean pronunciation textbook, published in 2013, and I’ve been looking forward to it so I bought it as soon as it came out. And then I got disappointed. In my honest opinion, this book is next to worthless to someone who is simply looking to learn how to pronounce Korean. While seeing all these charts, and statistics, and frequency tables, I have no idea how I could use this to improve my pronunciation.
However, if you are a linguist or interested in phonology this book will be invaluable to you as it is to my knowledge the only book on Korean phonetics and phonology available in English. I did end up reading most of it because it was also very fun.
I had some technical difficulties with this book. First I tried to order it on Kindle, because it was cheaper and I wanted to have it instantly and avoid paying shipping. However, Hangul didn’t display properly on my Kindle. In fact, it was just a bunch of squares. But I contacted Amazon support and they gave me a full refund, so I ended buying paperback edition. I wrote about this experience and took photographs of the package. This was back in 2013 so they probably already fixed the issue, but if you don’t want to risk it, just go with the printed version.
As you can see all three books have different purposes and will help you learn Korean pronunciation and learn to speak Korean in their own way, so if you can get at least the first two. If you are tight on money first one will probably suffice, though.